A Sea Change at Cryptic Studios


Gone are the halcyon days when a fledgling company could release a somewhat fun MMO and hope to turn a huge profit through monthly subscription fees. Since Blizzard entered that market with World of Warcraft in late 2004, gamers demand a near perfect experience, which pushes the smaller, less competent or untested original MMOs into obscurity. While I’m not positive that is a good thing for the industry (Teddy Roosevelt notwithstanding, is a monopoly ever a good thing?), it’s reality, and competing MMO-makers need to adjust their strategy if they want to compete.

Cryptic’s track record hasn’t been all that stellar, especially over the last two years. Champions Online was meant to be the successor to City of Heroes, but critics didn’t think that it had much depth beyond the robust character customization. Star Trek Online had a great license with a ready fan base, but even though the game was generally fun, it didn’t cash in on that license to keep high subscription numbers. Compared to WoW, these MMOs just felt like sub-par products. In order to draw gamers in and get them to stay, Cryptic needs to vastly alter its process of development. What worked for City of Heroes just doesn’t cut the mustard these days.

Apparently, I’m not the only person who thinks so. When I spoke to Cryptic’s Chief Operating Officer, Jack Emmert, about his upcoming Neverwinter , I was surprised that he spent half the interview talking about how good his chief competitor is.

World of Warcraft already does what an MMO wants to do and does it nigh perfectly,” Emmert said. “When [an MMO is released now], you have no room for error. No room to grow. You are immediately judged because you are charging what WoW charges. It just wasn’t like that with City of Heroes.”

The considerations for Cryptic’s upcoming project Neverwinter are a bit different because it’s not quite an MMORPG but more of a cooperative roleplaying game that you can play online with your friends. (For more information on that game, see this part of my interview with Emmert here which details what to expect from Neverwinter.) Still, Emmert is determined to adapt its processes and design philosophy to stay relevant in today’s MMO market. I respect that he is not ready to throw in the towel just yet.

“We’ve learned what not to do,” Emmert said when I asked him about Cryptic’s recent history. “We did Star Trek Online and Champions Online and we produced and created those the same way that we did City of Heroes and City of Villains.” When those games were made, there wasn’t a lot of testing between different classes or game systems and Emmert admits that led to an unpolished feel when they were released.

“Say we created a character class, a fighter,” Emmert said. “We tested it and it seemed pretty cool. Then we tested the wizard and that seemed pretty cool too and it worked. But we didn’t test them together, and we didn’t test them in particular adventures. So what would happen is that the features at the end of a project would all come together at once. In City of Heroes, it worked for the marketplace. People played the game, they enjoyed it. Now standards have changed and what happened with STO and Champions, internally we felt 100 percent confident, but when people played it and reviewers, The Escapist included, said, ‘Wow, this is really unpolished.’ We looked at that and said, ‘What the hell are you talking about? Did you play City of Heroes?'”

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Emmert must have been taking copious notes during Rob Pardo’s panel at GDC 2010 when the Blizzard game design guru detailed his strategy with WoW and other games. Much of what Emmert told me was changing at Cryptic seemed right out of Blizzard’s playbook.

To combat the negative player feedback and press that results from a game experience that isn’t perfect, Emmert said that he is completely changing the way that Cryptic makes videogames. The biggest development is making the game playable as soon as possible so that they can refine just how fun it is. Neverwinter isn’t due out until Q4 2011, yet Emmert can play the game right now.

“[Neverwinter] is almost 100 percent playable, every aspect of it. I can get in right now, and play for hours, content that we think internally is practically shippable,” Emmert said.

In addition, because the game is completely playable, they can bring in consultants to determine whether the game is fun over a year before launch, instead of letting reviewers rip it apart after it is already released into the wild, so to speak.

“We can give it to an outside reviewer. So we have an impartial person helping to monitor how well our game is going to do,” Emmert said. Using the informed opinions of individuals to assess the quality of Neverwinter is a response to the failure of “focus-groups” to point out anything wrong with Cryptic’s other games. “We did [focus groups] with Champions, but that didn’t really show any of the flaws, to be honest.” Cryptic had allowed independent reviewers to inspect both STO and Champions, and anecdotal evidence suggests that those reviewers raised huge red flags, but it was may have been too late in the design cycle for Cryptic to drastically alter their games before the scheduled release date.

Perhaps Emmert should look at the agreement with Cryptic’s publisher and force a shift to another of Blizzard’s famous philosophies, which is to only ship a product “when it’s done.” That way, when these “impartial reviewers” tell them that their games aren’t fun, they have the freedom to keep working on it until it is.

In talking to Emmert, it sounds like there is an ongoing sea change at the company, based on the lack of overwhelming success for its recent MMO releases. Emmert sees that the market has changed and that Cryptic must adapt if it is going to stay afloat. “We need to change our perspective,” Emmert said. “It’s not just a message about Neverwinter, it’s about everything that we do.”

That’s a huge statement to make. Emmert never out and out said that Cryptic had made bad games in the past (“I think that Champions Online was a great game. I still do.”) But he realizes that whatever Cryptic has done over the past two years isn’t exactly working. Instead of taking that in stride and sticking with the status quo, Emmert is making the changes that he thinks needs to happen to compete with Blizzard’s secret sauce. Of course, there is no real secret to Blizzard’s winning formula. The company of Warcraft just makes good games, and refuses to ship them until they are 100% satisfied that they will be successful.

Jack Emmert has stopped trying to remake the success of City of Heroes and is instead emulating his biggest competitor, which is exactly what he and Cryptic should be doing.

Greg Tito didn’t actually say that STO was unpolished; he was more upset that he had to kill X number of space pirates in order to level up his captain.

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